By Rosie Spinks
City on a Hill Press Reporter
Don’t keep Santa Cruz weird. That was the sentiment of the City Council last week as it passed new downtown ordinances restricting certain behaviors and increasing enforcement measures for the downtown and main beach areas.
The unanimous decision came after a tense meeting, where business owners and homeless advocates alike waged a war of words.
“This effort has come as a result of a great deal of public concern in recent years,” Mayor Cynthia Mathews remarked during the meeting.
The ordinance that was passed by the Council both amends existing measures and adds new ones. These include a one-hour sitting limit on public benches upon complaint, the prohibition of sale or service of alcohol to “serial inebriates,” and the restriction of panhandling within 14 feet of any trash compactor, public art such as statues, or directory signs. The new ordinance also states that the failure to answer three citations (non-criminal infractions) will result in the issue of an arrest warrant.
Some citizens had expressed concerns that the ordinances would limit political activity and street performers, a prominent part of Santa Cruz street culture, but Mathews stressed that the new measures were strictly targeting illegal activity. Council members also proposed a campaign aimed at educating the public on more effective alternatives to giving money to panhandlers, such as supporting local social services.
The decision came amid the claim from downtown business owners that their businesses have been negatively affected by an atmosphere of illegal activity and homelessness because both shoppers and new businesses are deterred from coming to Pacific Avenue.
Bill Tyssling, director of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, said the issues downtown were a matter of annoyance during the day and a matter of public safety in the evening.
“There is a very strong feeling within the business community that this is long overdue,” he said. “There has clearly been an exodus of businesses downtown.”
Despite a large turnout and overwhelming show of support for the measure present at the City Council meeting, opponents were also in attendance. Representatives for local homeless advocacy groups and many homeless people themselves showed up to voice their disapproval.
Robert Norse, a local radio host and advocate for Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF), refuted the mayor’s claim that the new ordinances are not an attack on homelessness.
“When you eliminate 90 percent of the Pacific Avenue sidewalk for sitting, you vastly restrict the place where people who are homeless can go and gather,” he said.
Norse also noted that the City Council failed to include any homeless advocacy groups or homeless people themselves in the process of drafting the ordinances, and questioned the real concerns of business owners.
“Business people are concerned with the perception of downtown as looking unsafe or seeming unsavory and that has to do with poor people living there, not with illegal behavior,” Norse said.
Third-year Kresge student Lylianna Carmago was also present at the meeting and spoke in defense of the homeless during the public comment portion. She said that while some changes made to the downtown area may be a good thing, the ordinances will only benefit some.
“[The ordinances] may be necessary, but they’ve gone too far in segregating people for their socioeconomic background,” she said. “I just believe that homeless programs need to be more accessible.”